A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Nathan Lane tries on the role of Pseudolus
Tony Walton brings back an old idea for the new set
A look at the songs Sondheim didn’t use
Forum is fun, but it’s also sexist
Getting Away with Murder
The comedy thriller by Sondheim and Furth dies a quick death
Peter Filichia is among the critics
The producer believes there’s still a long life for Murder
News & Notes
The Goodspeed Opera House will present its first Sondheim show; news from Sondheim
In an interview, Sondheim talks about the British, writing and audiences
Passion turns up in California, Connecticut and North Carolina
New productions of Sweeney in Pittsburgh and Portland
A Sondheim tribute is a star-studded AIDS benefit in Hollywood
Passion opens in London, starring Michael Ball and Maria Friedman
Sending up Sondheim with some pointed parodies
Mandy Patinkin recalls the incandescent experience of Sunday in the Park
Freud’s insights have an influence on Into the Woods
The revival cast of Company is now on disc; new interpretations of the songs of West Side Story
For Your Amusement
Casting the movie version of Into the Woods; a new quiz; a new contest
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
Patinkin muses on Sondheim and Sunday
By Terri Roberts
Taking a brief respite from a hectic concert schedule that has taken him across the country and to England, Mandy Patinkin reflects on his relationship with Stephen Sondheim and his experiences in Sunday in the Park with George.
TSR: Did Steve call you up (to audition) for Sunday?
MP: Nope. James Lapine came and talked to me. I’d just won the Tony Award for Evita so I thought, “Great! I won this award so I won’t have to audition.” Then James says, “And you have to audition for Steve.” “What! Hasn’t he heard me sing?” “Yeah, but he says you have to audition.” I was terrified, so I said, “No. I’m not going. I’m too scared.” Then I called back and said, “Look, scared or not, I want to work with this guy. I’ll find a way to throw up a few times before and after and I’ll get through it.”
TSR: What kind of preparation did you do to create the character of George?
MP: I went to the Art Students League of New York and studied art and learned how to draw. And I made two trips to Chicago and hung out in front of the painting for a couple of days (at the Art Institute of Chicago). I wanted to see the real colors. When I was saying “Red, red, red” and “Yellow, yellow, yellow,” I wanted to know exactly where I was going to be doing it.
TSR: What was your experience in the show? What was the rehearsal process like?
MP: I’ll tell you in a different way. Five or six years after Sunday closed, I got a call from a New York Times reporter doing a piece on Bernadette (Peters, who played Dot). I’d never heard the album from the day I made it, so I put a tape of it on in the car. Now the album tells the story rather well, and I found myself listening to it for the first time rather than being in it. I got incredibly emotional and had to pull over (’cause I was about to kill myself in a car accident) and wept profusely. And I wept because of what the story was. Then I heard the words to “Move On,” and I was very affected by it.
But I was most affected by something I didn’t realize at the time. My job wasn’t to realize it, but to do it , and part of doing it was to be in great pain at moments and great ecstasy at moments, but very busy. Very busy working and painting and fighting for a relationship with this woman. It was a difficult experience to go through, particularly toward the end of the play when I would see that ancestry come forward and feel the connection. I knew the show was great, but I never knew it was that great. I guess, like all things, you never realize how great something is until it’s gone.
A few years later, the original cast was asked to do a ten-year anniversary concert for an AIDS benefit. I hadn’t sung these words or listened to them, other than that one occasion in the car, in ten years. But the audience demanded something and the actors responded. All of a sudden, I found myself closing the book and I remembered every word. When it was over, I said to Steve, “You know, ten years ago you said something to me like, ‘Well, I know this was a pretty good experience for you because you did the workshop and were part of the discovery and the process of the whole thing, but for me it was just like any other show.'”
And I’d thought he was nuts! So ten years later I’m repeating that conversation to him, and I said, “You were full of it! This is the greatest thing you ever wrote!” I lived in this man’s skin a long time and I thought I knew many things about it. Then ten years later we’re doing the same words, we’re in the same situations and we’re saying things like, “It’s not my child.” “You never look up from your pad.” “I can’t. It’s not my child. I’m working.” And I recognized some horrible, very painful things in my own life that the piece now spoke to me about that I hadn’t understood ten years before. So I’m grateful that I learned them, and I’m astounded at what James and Steve wrote about life and children and art. I can’t wait to look at it ten years from now and see what else it teaches me.
TSR: Can you elaborate a bit on the lessons you learned?
MP: It had to do with the power and nature of one’s relationship to work, their own selfishness vs. the needs of others in their life, (things) that they either choose to recognize or choose to ignore. I was 31 in 1984 and far more selfish and ignoring of my wife and children for my work, which caused a lot of pain. So I could either continue being that way or grow up. I grew up. Now, ten years later, I played this man again, and I had the real wisdom of what it could be to achieve those places or to ignore them. Mr. Seurat chose to ignore them.
TSR: Tell me what it was like working with Stephen Sondheim in the creation of the show.
MP: The Playwrights Horizons workshop was a nightmare. At one point I quit because I had nothing to sing except “Color and Light.” I went through six weeks of rehearsal, drawing, and he wrote everything but what the artist had to say. So essentially he painted the picture first, though I didn’t realize this at the time. Basically, I thought I was getting screwed! So I quit. James called my wife and agent and asked them to come watch rehearsal that night, and he told me to give that show everything I had. Then, if my wife and agent agreed with me, I could go. So I gave it everything I had, we went to dinner afterwards and they all said, “We understand you’re not happy, but this is incredible work on everybody’s part and you can’t leave.” “But I’m not singing anything!” “It doesn’t matter,” they said. “This is something wonderful.” And I said OK.
So we opened it in New York, but the second act wasn’t quite right. It didn’t lead anywhere and it was killing our performances-particularly mine-in the first act. I said to Steve, “Please! Write me anything, even if it’s garbage!” Well, the fact is that he couldn’t write it until he was able to. Then one day, after all the bad word of mouth had been going around, he comes in with “Children and Art” for Bernadette and “Lesson No. 8” for me. We learned the songs that afternoon, put them in that night, and it transformed the piece like Cinderella’s pumpkin turning into the coach. It was magical. It had a backward domino effect right back to the beginning of the play and just shot it out like a cannon.
And it was at that moment that I finally understood how Steve worked. He needed to take the time to say what he needed to say, and it wasn’t going to get said until he was ready to say it. Part of it was the necessary pressure of the clock; part of it was just time and whatever the experience was that was being generated by that time. But when he was ready, he would say it. And it taught me how to work on music. That’s why, when I develop my records and my show, I do it slowly. It taught me to love that workshop experience that I’d begun hating. I don’t want to do shows anymore unless we workshop them. I want the chaos and the terror of being lost.
TSR: Do you think George ever saw Dot as a human being, as an individual?
MP: Absolutely. But he didn’t know how to embrace it. He didn’t know how to mix it with his work or how to separate it from his fears and feelings about his mother. It was a great tragedy because those two people belonged together. And when you’re with someone you’re meant to be with, that doesn’t mean you don’t have all kinds of fires to get through and you don’t get burned a lot-but it’s worth it. Had George lived, just like the young George lives and brings Dot forth in the second act, I think he would have found her and eventually been with her. But he needed to grow up. He needed to get a certain amount of work out of his system-or to work out of his system a certain amount of youth, expression, selfishness or all of it; to be able to realize that maybe the greatest thing he would ever learn to paint would be his intention to someone else.
TSR: Why did you make Oscar and Steve?
MP: I was shooting Chicago Hope, and the record Experiment had come out, and my producer said, “Let’s make another record.” I said, “I’m doing this TV show and get 50 pages a week of stuff to learn. Let’s find somebody to just hand me an album. ” So we called (friend) Jonathan Schwartz, who had the idea for Oscar and Steve. Then we called (pianist) Paul Ford and (conductor) Eric Stern and said, “Here’s the idea. Can you put together some stuff based on these two guys?” And they did. During Chicago Hope’s hiatus, I came home and we rehearsed, arranged it, fine-tuned it and recorded it. It’s the fastest album I ever made.
TSR: What’s your relationship with Steve like now?
MP: He’s very supportive of other things I do and I try and do the same for him. With Oscar and Steve, particularly, I sent it to him beforehand. He called and said, “I liked it a lot, but I’m concerned about some of the places where you get a little wild because you often get criticized for that-like I always get criticized for my dissonant chords.” I said, “Well, I had other takes and I specifically chose these because I like where I go with them-the screams in ‘You Have to Be Carefully Taught,’ etc. And in terms of my critics, I said, ‘It’s who I am, Steve, and I wouldn’t dare disappoint my critics!'” Whereupon he started laughing hysterically and said, “Oh God, I love that line! I’m using it, I’m not giving you credit for it and I’m going right in the other room to write another dissonant chord!” So that was a happy moment for me.
Terri Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.